Community Table at The Ecology Center: Chefs Ryan and Nikki Wilson
"Community Table is a sensory experience, a program where we work diligently to connect with chefs in our community who source ingredients with integrity and back-stories."The Congdon House, built in 1878, has seen years of changes to its surroundings and the communities in the area. It began its legs as a slightly out-of-the-ordinary structure, built of English Walnut and Redwood rather than the typical infrastructure at the time but now has withstood the test of time to become part of The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. It sits on a 135+ year old certified organic farm and serves its purpose as an educational center that connects all individuals in the community with hands-on activities to teach and create environmental solutions. "Founded on the principle that each person can make a difference toward a sustainable future," the center offers a variety of programs including what we were there fore - Community Table. This event allows attendees to enjoy local and sustainable food from area chefs while learning about the food ecosystem. We were invited one beautiful morning to enjoy the very talented Tuscan-inspired fare of Chef Ryan O'Melveny Wilson, Corporate Executive Chef for Lawry's Restaurants and Executive Chef of Five Crowns and SideDoor (and Ecology Center board member), and Pastry Chef Nikki Belcore Wilson of Studio at the Montage.
"It's not just how we eat here today but how we live our lives; when we start connecting chefs with local farmers, we start an economy that will survive."
Long wooden picnic tables filled up with people eager to experience the last Community Table event of the season. These feasts are family-style and meant to celebrate the beauty of using local and sustainable ingredients. In fact, the menu itself listed all the purveyors and the distance from the Ecology Center in miles from main components like pork and major greens down to things like flour (Pasadena / 67 miles) and fennel seed (Corona Del Mar / 20 miles). This truly gave attendees a good view of the distance food must travel to get to everyone even if local.
With some lively entertainment, we were all introduced to the purpose and mission of The Ecology Center before hearing from the chefs about the theme of the meal that gorgeous morning. Based on the time Chef Ryan Wilson spent in Tuscan learning about whole animal butchery and the cuisine, the courses were inspired by traditional dishes from the region but utilizing the beautiful and bountiful produce of California. One of the prime features of the meal was the main purveyor - Cook Pigs Ranch, a family-owned farm located in Julian, CA about one hour east of San Diego that raises heritage pigs which feed freely on grass, roots, natural herbs, acorns, and nuts. They do not use hormones or non-natural supplements during the raising process.
To start the meal off, we tore off pieces of fresh Lungo Bianca Squash Muffins and Tigelle. The Lungo Bianca squash was grown in Corona del Mar and was incorporated into Chef Nikki's olive oil cake before being decorated with squash blossoms from same plant. These were moist and very much a baked good I could have taken a full basket of. As for the tigelle, we had never seen the endearing baked good before which made sense once Chef Nikki described it. A quintessential treat from Modena, its design comes from a press only made in Modena; these were par-baked and then heated in outdoor oven. Both came served with homemade cultured butter made with Strauss cream, OC honey, and sea salt. Soft and slightly sweet, these tigelle were simple but extraordinarily so, and we could not stop eating them.
The Primi was the Ribolita Da Delfina (summer shelling beans, dandelion greens, and pumpkin with olive oil fried egg and Early Girl tomato conserva), a classic Tuscan dish that was described as nearly akin to a minestrone soup that was cooked down before being combined with bread. It was hearty and just about a entire meal on its own because of its savoriness. The tomatoes were quartered and seasoned for a few days to let the salt pull out moisture and then canned in olive oil which gave it a nice brightness to split through the heaviness of the the main part of this dish.
"I think it is more and more important for us to be building our dishes around vegetables and then have a small part of protein." - Chef Ryan WilsonThe Secondi were the highlights of the meal - Porchetta da Panzano and Salsiccia di Maiale. These beautiful cuts were done in the outdoor oven and served with several Contorni - Ceci Beans All-Uccelletto, Braised Greens (fennel, garlic, and red onion), and a Pepperoncini condiment known as Tuscan ketchup that is spicy and slightly sweet. The skin of the porchetta was audibly crunchy and slightly smoky in flavor while the flesh was juicy and full of fattiness. The pork sausages too were very hefty and bursting with umami. It was glaringly obvious what a difference the pig raising made to the flesh. As the chef pointed out, everything was made with love from the birthing to the final presentation onthe plate. To cleanse the palate and help with digestion afterward, we were presented with a very bitter fall/winter green that had us wincing at the taste.
To end, we had our Dolci course: Marinated Champagne grapes with fresh figs with California zabaglione and topped with a fennel and almond biscotti. This was inspired by California so included plenty of grapes, an organic dessert wine from Santa Barbara, and a medley of figs. The Italian custard was light and spiked with the wine which brought out more of the grapes' flavors. The subtle flavors of the biscotti were a perfect fit with something that has a stronger initial flavor.
If you are interested in the amazing eco-educational programs at The Ecology Center, they are at 32701 Alipaz Street in San Juan Capistrano. The programs are built for all ages with on- and off-site activities including Backyard Skills lectures for practical skills and hands-on solutions and the Grow Your Own! organic garden school program to integrate the lessons into the curriculum. Though this was the last Community Table event of the year that we attended, make sure you put the 2015 events on your calendar as they become available!
Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.